What’s happening with the REF initial decisions consultation?

Research England's Jessica Corner, along with the other national research funding bodies, has been listening to and learning from sector responses to REF proposals

Jessica Corner is Executive Chair of Research England, part of UK Research and Innovation

In June the four Higher Education Funding Bodies published the Initial Decisions on the 2028 Research Excellence Framework (REF).

Since then our formal consultation on specific issues has now closed and we have received 260 detailed, thoughtful responses which we are carefully considering.

It has been really pleasing to receive so many positive responses to the changes, but responses have also highlighted areas of concern and possible unintended consequences.

Practical issues have been identified, and a variety of possible solutions proposed.

We have also invited inputs specifically on proposals relating to the People, Culture and Environment element which builds on the Environment element of REF 2021. Responses to this are due by 1 December.

Listening and learning

Colleagues from the four national funding bodies have been actively engaging with institutions, subject associations, learned societies and sector mission groups and bodies in many informal gatherings, more formal conferences and events and webinars. There are further engagements being undertaken with vice chancellors, ARMA and REF Managers, technicians and early career researchers. This has been complemented by many valuable one-to-one conversations with sector leaders, vice chancellors, pro-vice chancellors, publishers, academics, and many others.

We have also observed directly how institutions are already preparing for the new elements of REF. It has been really energising to hear where and how proposals are being embraced on the ground. There is much innovation happening which is exciting to see.

The Research Excellence Framework and its forebears have always been developed in collaboration with the sector. It is shaped and evolves through iterative dialogue where concerns are settled, and best fit solutions found. It is a shared endeavour, rightly so as the stakes feel very high for all concerned.

Concerns related to the magnitude of changes proposed have been raised. The sector has highlighted the possible implications of putting less focus on output assessment and possible unintended consequences related to the removal of minimum and maximum requirements placed on individuals. It has been argued that these unintended consequences could be detrimental to the inclusivity we are striving to achieve.

Research culture

At the same time, there has been very positive endorsement of the proposals for intersectoral mobility, career path diversity and recognition of a greater breadth of research outputs. Many have agreed that it is crucial to focus upon attracting, developing, retaining and recognising all of the people that contribute to research excellence. There are live and urgent conversations concerning the risk to the research record from AI, or the narrowing of outcomes of research, driven by hyper-competition and an overemphasis on traditional published outputs. Finally, continuing the evolving journey in demonstrating the impact of research and development on society and the economy has been endorsed as an imperative.

While engagement on the People, Culture and Environment element continues, we are hearing concerns about the degree and pace of change and the uncertainty associated with an expanded area of assessment. The funding bodies are committed to an evidence based, rigorous process, co-developed with the sector. We are commissioning further work on the development of our approach to assessing People, Culture and Environment, which will be delivered during 2024.

Alongside this work we are considering options for testing and piloting the expanded element. When the work developing People, Culture and Environment is more advanced, the funding bodies will review the proposed weighting of 25 per cent, based on the evidence accumulated through this careful and thorough work.

As we consider how to take into account the thoughtful feedback we have received, our focus will be on balancing these diverse perspectives while maintaining an assessment process which is fair and robust.

Next steps

We are approaching the stage when the funding bodies can begin to set out our response to the feedback received and the path towards final guidance. This is outlined in our recently published update.

In December we will announce the issues emerging from the analysis of responses to the initial consultation, and our plans to address them. These will relate to the use of HESA data for calculating volume measures, confirmation of the unit of assessment structure, details around impact case study requirements, the eligibility of research outputs and guidance around the demonstration of a substantive link between research outputs and institutions. We will also announce plans concerning minimum and maximum requirements.

In January 2024, we will make further announcements concerning the People, Culture and Environment element. This will include confirmation of the successful bidder for developing indicators, alongside their work plan and timelines. We will also confirm any plans for testing and piloting the People, Culture and Environment element.

We also expect to launch a consultation on REF open access requirements during January.

In Spring 2024 further decisions will be published, providing more detail on points of policy for the forthcoming REF cycle. This will include further details on the information required to supplement submission of outputs and impact case studies. Following the analysis of the open access consultation, we will also confirm policy in that area.

With my colleagues from the four funding bodies I look forward to our ongoing conversation as we bring certainty to the direction of travel for the Research Excellence Framework.

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